Zamboanga Sibugay families of drug war victims cross fingers as ICC opens probe

Mixed joy and disbelief were what the families of drug war victims felt when the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) moved to investigate President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and the Davao City killings.

“I am happy, but can they (ICC investigators) succeed?” asked 57-year-old Aida Sawadjaan of Zamboanga Sibugay province who lost a son to the drug war.

A local court has yet to start the trial of the case she filed against a group of police officers accused of murdering her son Anwar and two of his friends in neighboring Zamboanga del Norte province in 2016. The Sawadjaans and other families have pinned their hopes for justice on the ICC.

“I heard in the news that Duterte will not submit to the investigation. Gahi ra ba gyud ni si Duterte (This Duterte is tough),” said Sawadjaan, adding that she has yet to get over the killing of her son.

Duterte has repeatedly said he would not cooperate with the investigation, and would not submit to the ICC which he views as a meddler in the government’s affairs.

The ICC pre-trial chamber announced on Wednesday, September 15, that it has opened the investigation into the controversial Philippine war on drugs and the Davao City killings covering the period November 1, 2011 until March 16, 2019.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Lawyer Josefino Bael, counsel for the three Zamboanga Sibugay families, said he was optimistic and considered the decision to open the investigation as “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“The ICC investigation would ferret out the truth from the thousands of deaths due to the government’s war on drugs,” the 74-year-old lawyer told Rappler.

For the families, however, it was more than ferreting out the truth.

The ICC investigation could also move the court to finally hear the murder case against the policemen who remained scot-free, they said.  

Bael, a retired judge, said the accounts of witnesses showed that the 19-year-old Anwar Sawadjaan, 22-year-old Noel Rey Bacalso, and 20-year-old Angelo Hofer were murdered in Zamboanga del Norte barely a month after Duterte came to office.

He also said the police officers responsible for their deaths acted beyond what they claimed was a legitimate operation.

The accused in the murder case include Captain Ernesto Etorn Jr., Patrolmen Rodel Sorela, Archer Rendon, Lodgin Neri, Bryan Galea, and several John Does.

Bael and the families said they were baffled because it was taking ages for a regional court in Liloy Zamboanga del Norte to hear the case.

Police have maintained that the three young men were drug couriers who were killed because they fought back instead of yielding to arresting officers at a checkpoint along the boundaries of Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga Sibugay on July 29, 2016.

Bael, however, said eyewitnesses swore there was no police checkpoint in the area, and that the police allegedly riddled the defenseless young men with bullets in their pickup truck.

Nights of wailing

“The brutal death of our son in the hands of the police did not only destroy us emotionally. It destroyed our family,” said Sawadjaan, her head bowed as she tried to fight back tears.

More than five years after her son’s death, Sawadjaan has not only lost a son – she also lost her husband, a retired fireman, who decided to leave the family and live elsewhere apparently as a result of the tragedy.

She said her husband, who had just retired from government service when their son was killed, was broken.

“There were evenings when he was wailing. He was in anguish. The death of Anwar has gotten the best of him,” Sawadjaan recounted. – Rappler.com

Antonio Manaytay is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship